More than Bodies, Bucks, and Bricks—Large Churches Join Vitality Process

By Cathy Norman Peterson

MINNEAPOLIS, MN (December 9, 2013) — Undermining the myth that packed pews automatically mean a church is healthy, several large churches participated in the denomination’s fourth annual Navigate conference last month.

The purpose of the conference is to help churches to become more healthy and missional. Based on the proverb in Ecclesiastes that a cord of three strands is not easily broken, Navigate provides an opportunity for laypeople and pastors to join with other church leaders to support and encourage each other on the road to more vital and healthy ministry, said John Wenrich, director of congregational vitality.

Throughout the weekend, several speakers repeated the refrain, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

More than 100 participants from 30 churches attended the three-day event, which has been hosted by First Covenant Church in Minneapolis for the past three years. Workshops and plenary sessions were structured around ten healthy missional markers.

Directors of congregational vitality from each ECC conference invited participants to attend, focusing on congregations that identify themselves as either “stable” or “critical moment.”

For the first time several large churches participated this year. First Covenant Church in Grand Rapids has around 600 members. Neal Herr, pastor of congregational development there, addressed potential misconceptions about ministry in larger churches. “I would say that it’s a myth that bigger is better,” he said. “Certainly healthy things do grow. But so does cancer. I don’t think something that’s bigger and growing is necessarily healthier.”

Herr continued, “I think bigger certainly means more complex. I think there are more opportunities to be drawn away from your mission with a larger congregation. …There are aspects of our church that are definitely healthy and thriving. But there are some aspects that are not. And that’s why we need this. That’s why we need other churches to come alongside us in this pathway.”

Participants repeatedly noted that one of the primary strengths of Navigate is the community it provides. Each church brings a pastor and two or three lay leaders, and each congregation is then linked with two other congregations in a “triad.” Triads are based on proximity, so large and small churches join together to talk about their congregational vitality journeys. Pastors meet monthly with their triads, and they are joined by lay leaders at least once after Navigate for a daylong retreat together at a central location.

Further belying the stereotype that only struggling churches participate in the vitality pathway, workshops and speakers specifically addressed the needs and challenges of stable congregations. Faith Covenant Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan, is anticipating its centennial celebration and has an average attendance of more than 300. Pastor Ken Larson described the congregation as “pretty stable.”

“For me the attraction here is being part of a process that begins with telling the truth about your church,” he said. But, he added, “Looking down the road we realize some things have to change, and I think this is going to give us some tools and perspective to know how to do that.”

Peter Hawkinson, pastor of Winnetka Covenant Church in Wilmette, Illinois, added, “We often have conversations about mission and identity and those kinds of important things may be too much in the vacuum of staff or leadership. This is forcing us to have a wider congregational conversation about who we are and what we’re about.”

The resources remain helpful for all kinds of settings. Whitney Hall, pastor of Emmanuel Covenant Church in Nashua, New Hampshire, a congregation of some 30 members, said she especially appreciated hearing stories of other churches who are in the midst of the congregational vitality pathway. “It is such a gift to be reminded that each of our Covenant churches, whether they be big or small, is connected in our desire to serve and that in that desire we are able to journey together,” she said.

Some participants suggest that every church in transition would benefit from participating in the vitality pathway. David Beck, pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Sacramento, California, said, “I believe every lead pastor taking a call should go through the vitality process with his or her new congregation and staff. I wish I had done this three years ago when I was hired at Sanctuary.”

He added, “What I like best about vitality is that there are no gimmicks. The principles are derived from solid sources, both inside and outside the church world. At the same time, a lot of research has been done to draw out best practices specifically for the unique things churches do and the challenges they face.”

Workshops addressed a wide array of topics, from managing conflict to developing a culture of creative worship, and ensuring that church structures are promoting health and growth.

Wenrich cautioned participants, “Let us remember that vitality is not the goal; it is simply a byproduct of doing good ministry over a long period of time and the moving of the Holy Spirit.”

He added, “These stable churches are really to be commended for not settling for the status quo and for their willingness to engage the process so they can be even more fruitful with the resources God has entrusted to them. I really admire them for moving out of their comfort zones and into a more robust experience of life and ministry—and for reconnecting with their first love.”

For more information, contact congregational vitality by email or calling (773) 907-3354.

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